Building a Better Human With Science Revisited

My last post discussed public opposition to “Building a Better Human With Science.” People are generally skeptical of both futuristic technologies as well the scientists developing them. It also turns out that future technologies are disproportionately opposed by religious persons, and most accepted by the least religious. This confirms my experience teaching transhumanism in college classes over the decades—a religious worldview is a good predictor of opposition to new technologies.

So the majority of the public rejects the idea that we should use scientific knowledge to improve human beings and the human condition! This is truly an astonishing claim. In reply I would say that, while there may be other ways to enhance human intellectual and moral virtue than using science to modify genes and environment, I’m not sure what those are. So if you are really serious about making things better, you should use science and technology—the best means of improving the human condition we have ever discovered.

My post elicited some thoughtful responses. (For the full responses see comments section of my previous post.) Chris argued that “This essay leaves me deeply depressed, because it hits the nail on the head so perfectly. Homo Sapiens are simply incapable of coping with the challenges of modern civilization. The extinction of civilization is therefore inevitable.” This is a depressing thought that I and others have entertained.

Chris also argues that “… the correlation between religious belief and rejection of science is due to an underlying psychology that generates both beliefs.” His point is that religious indoctrination, like indoctrinated racism or sexism, is hard to overcome with rational argumentation. In other words, visceral emotions are not easily expunged from one’s psyche. Dave replied to Chris, arguing that while racism and sexism and other forms of ignorance still exist, there is reason to believe in human moral progress. He offers the recent acceptance of homosexuality in American as an example.

I would add that it takes training in critical thinking for the cerebral cortex to learn to govern the emotional responses that derive from the deep recesses of our reptilian brains. And I also believe we need technologically supplied intelligence augmentation and artificial intelligence if we are to survive and flourish. 

Jim commented by saying that “I’m depressed, too, but not for the same reason as Chris.” Jim’s concern is “that corporations would rush to offer each of the technologies before they had adequately tested or even understood them.” He notes that it is the corporate profit motive and not the scientific search for truth that scares him. Jim admits that “many marvelous … new technologies … have proven beneficial … [but] there are also many examples of detrimental and dangerous products that were pushed on an unsuspecting public … So people are right to be a little skeptical and mistrustful—not of the scientists, but of the profit motive of the corporation pushing the product.” I believe Jim’s concerns are legitimate, and I hope that futuristic technologies are well-tested before being used.

Goethe expressed different concerns. He worries that “we are living in an experiment; not one created by nature, but one imposed upon ourselves by ambition. That experiment is unstable, its foundations are centred in our cultural and material perspectives.” His emphasis is on the destruction of the ecosystem, without which life on earth would be impossible for biological beings like ourselves. I completely agree, and no doubt the possibility of any good future depends in large part on our continuing to thrive now, something we cannot do without a clean environment, preservation of biodiversity, control of climate change, etc. Goethe concludes that “For my own view human intellect and moral virtue are enhanced well by meditation and taking time to connect subtly with our world and its inhabitants rather than conquer and profit from it and them.”

I am sympathetic to this Eastern philosophical approach, although I also believe we will need to change ourselves in even more dramatic ways than one can do by meditating if we are to survive and flourish. I would like to thank my commenters for their thoughtful responses to my blog post. I just wish I had the time to give those comments the full replies they deserve. Thanks again to Chris, Jim, Dave, and Goethe.

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2 thoughts on “Building a Better Human With Science Revisited

  1. There is an evolutionary explanation for our species’ failure to keep up with the environment it has created. By 100,000 years ago, four major mental modules were in place in the human brain:
    1. Visual/spatial. This enabled visualization of objects in imaginary spaces. Maps.
    2. Social. Used for anticipating the behavior of others, so as to influence them.
    3. Verbal/Linguistic. Used at first for communication
    4. Natural history: reasoning about cause/effect relationships in the natural world.

    These modules (along with many others) operated independently. Each one had its defined domain of applicability to which it confined its efforts. But the verbal/linguistic module changed this neat system. You can’t talk about one of your modules without the verbal/linguistic module having links to it. Thus, verbal/linguistic module became the liaison between different modules, as well as the “spokesperson” for the entire system. This process reached critical mass around 50,000 years ago, triggering a cognitive revolution that expressed itself in a burst of creativity.

    The interactions between the individual modules led to completely new behaviors. For example, the interaction between the verbal/linguistic module and the social module led to storytelling. But the crucial interaction, for the purposes of this discussion, was the interaction between the natural history module and the social module. This interaction led to the hypothesis that powerful “people” (gods) were the causal agents in the natural world. This implied that applying the same techniques used to gain favor with other people would influence the powerful imaginary people to adjust the natural world to the benefit of the petitioners. Hence all manner of “kissing up to the Big Guy” behaviors: sacrifices, extravagant praise, building an opulent house for Him, etc. The point and purpose of this was manifested in prayer: “Please God, rig the system to my benefit.” Confirmation bias insured that thousands of years of failure would not dampen the ardor of belief.

    Religion would then have been born in the last 50,000 years, and has had plenty of time to hone its message. It was only in the last 2,000 years that we saw the interaction of the verbal/linguistic module (which produced logical reasoning) and the natural history module generate science — and even then, the interaction was a bit of a fluke. But in our case, it worked splendiferously, science took off, and civilization progressed to its current pinnacle with video games. {cough, cough}

    Thus, religion is a much older way of explaining the natural world. It has seeped deeper into our cognitive processes. Even atheists cannot resist the urge to anthropomorphize natural phenomena. Science, by contrast, is too new to have developed any deep sense of confidence among members of the species.

    All of which makes me want to be Homo Other-than-Sapiens.

  2. Really well put and I think you’ve zeroed in on one of the reasons supernatural thinking is so much easier for most people than scientific thinking.

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